Mel Birnkrant
A REVEALATION
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All images of Mickey Mouse and other Disney Characters are TM and © The Walt Disney Company.
Words and photographs are © Mel Birnkrant.
 

          And so, I did attend the University of Michigan, for one year.  And I loved it there.  I got amazing grades, and an equally amazing girlfriend, Lois Malzman.  And I felt like the school’s resident Picasso.  Alas, I wasn’t learning anything, except how to succeed in art school, without really trying.  Over time, all three of my art teachers, secretly and separately, advised me that I had to “get the Hell out of there, and go to a real art school if I hoped to be an artist.”  It broke my heart to leave, but I knew that they were right.  Therefore, I transferred to Pratt Institute in New York City.  After a year and a half at Pratt, my father passed away.  Suddenly, the world looked like a different place to me.  I realized that I was wasting my time, and sensed that there must be more to life.  So, I dropped out of school, and spent another six months in the city, during which time Pratt allowed me to attend double sessions of figure drawing and sculpting, two days a week, as the only part-time day student in their history.  Finally, after a horrible summer in Detroit, my last, I cashed in the War bonds I'd been given as a baby, and a life insurance policy, and headed off to Paris France.

        
On the day I left the USA, I made a meaningful gesture.  Twelve years before, our next door neighbors, Irving and Lina Small, had adopted an infant daughter who was an orphan.  Her birth parents had passed away, shortly after she was born.  They named her, "Candy."  Candy Small was an adorable and amusing child.  I fondly watched her growing up.  Therefore, on the day before I left for Europe, to symbolize the fact that I was officially leaving my childhood, and my lifelong love of Disney, behind me, I gathered up the animation cels that I had purchased, on that day at Disneyland, three years before, and gave them all to Little Orphan Candy.

         
That final summer in Detroit had been traumatic.  I learned the hard way that leaving my widowed mother, a year after her husband, my father, died, immediately qualified me to be the “black sheep” of the Birnkrant family, a place formerly occupied by my cousin Miles.  When I arrived in France I checked into the least expensive hotel I could find, and slept for three days and nights.  Then, I woke up to a whole new life, and my entire history, up to that time, seemed like no more than a dream that, in the end, became a nightmare.  

        
Now, I left all that behind me, and overnight, I found myself living the bohemian life on the Left Bank of Paris, France.  Having little money, that was the only bank I was likely to see.  It was the era of the Beat Generation, and I was considered to be a member of that not so select community.  I had come to Paris to see and do art, and hopefully have a good time.  In retrospect, I realize I did more of the latter than the former.  And the art I saw was not found in the museums and galleries, but rather in the quaint shops, open air markets, and stalls, along the Seine.  It was there that I discovered the toys and trifles of yesterday.  And, soon, my small hotel room began to fill up with the fabulous treasures I discovered in the shops and flea markets of Paris, as, with the acquisition of one amazing object, after another, I was becoming a collector.

         
Then, one fateful day, at the Paris Flea market, which at that time, was the only "Flea Market" in the world, I found myself staring at a puzzling object, an object that was destined to profoundly alter the course of my entire life.  It was an amazing cast iron bank, in the form of Mickey Mouse!  It caught my eye from afar, shining like a beacon, amid a sea of ancient things.  Although, younger than the stuff around it, this image was older than, and unlike any Mickey Mouse that I had ever seen.  But it was not the Mickeyness of the object that attracted me.  It was the fierce power of the image, the pure and unexpected geometry, the straight lines and sharp angles, the pointed snout and elbows, and how they contrasted with and played off of the round elements of his anatomy.  And then, there was a subtle shift, as the figure gently leaned to one side, not enough to destroy its symmetry, but just enough to keep him off balance, always in motion, and alive.
          I found this to be a fascinating sculpture.  But, it was also Mickey Mouse.  Although, I had never seen a Mickey Mouse as powerful as this, he was still the symbol of everything I thought had rejected and outgrown.  And a battle raged within me.  Could I give in to the spell that this fierce, yet friendly, object was casting over me, and embrace it, in spite of the fact that it symbolized the Disney dominated youth that I had left behind me?  An hour passed, as I stood “mousemerized.” 

        
Suddenly, in an exquisite moment of revelation, the answer came to me.  I felt as if the hand of fate was touching me, and from that moment forward, my life would never be the same.  What a fool I’d been to hesitate, as if the choice to purchase this cast iron bank was mine to make.  Destiny was offering me no option.  Of course, I had to have this thing!  And so, I bought it!  Considering that my hotel room rent was the equivalent of $30 a month, its price of $10 dollars was not to be taken lightly.  This was no small purchase.  But the money was not the issue, it was, instead, the inner conflict that was dramatically resolved by the realization that this object was indeed a sculpture, one that both transcended its subject matter, and at the same time, endowed it with the gift of life.

         
And thus, began a lifetime of collecting.  By recognizing that this object was a work of art, when to the rest of the world, it was not, and confirming my conviction by paying what was, at the time, a painful price, I experienced all the emotional satisfaction that I would have if I had actually created this powerful sculpture, myself.  Maybe more so, for I was feeling all the joys of creativity, instantaneously, without any of the usual hard work involved. 

         
And so, the quest began!  Beginning at that moment at the “le Marché aux Puces,” the Market of Fleas, my life became a journey of discovery.  And I have spent most of my time, all of my money, and much of my creative energy, finding objects, not intended to be “art”, and elevating them to that, at least, in my own eyes.  The very act of recognizing the visual merits of these sometimes humble works, many intended merely to amuse children, and later, be discarded, became an act of creativity.  And the moment of recognition, that instant of discovery, seeing  the element of art in the works of  unknown craftsmen, often toiling in the toy industry, became a way of “doing art” for me.  Each new find was, essentially, a thrilling moment of creativity, spontaneous and instantaneous!   At exhilarating times like these, I could sense my entire body tingling, and ever so slightly, levitating.

         
And thus, it was in Paris that I discovered the two great loves of my life, collecting, and Eunice Richards of Dover England, my future wife.  Returning to the USA, Eunice and I married in Ann Arbor.  And, before the year was over, we were blessed with a new baby, our first daughter, Samantha.  One week later, we headed off to New York City, where we set up housekeeping in an illegal loft on 26th Street.  The challenge of making a living did not seem like a big deal to me, because I had no desire to be wealthy.  Therefore, Eunice and I began a small business, called “Boutique Fantastique,” in which we faithfully reproduced, by hand, antique toys that never existed in the first place.  Many of these fictional recreations were inspired by the graphic imagery I found in Paris. 

         
The old man in this video, created by my good friend, James Gurney, will offer you a glimpse of some of the esoteric things that this young couple made, some fifty-seven years ago.
         Meanwhile, every Christmas, which was the only time that we had money, Santa, with the help of Eunice, would fulfill my heart’s desire with some wonderful new treasures.  Nonetheless, I thought the Mickey Mouse bank that I had acquired at the Paris Flea Market had been a once in a lifetime opportunity, for there was nothing like it to be seen.  And so, this powerful icon sat inconspicuously on a shelf, in our old loft, among a gathering of unrelated objects.  Four years sped by quickly, before I got another Mickey.
          In 1964, we made a giant leap to a rent controlled apartment on 28th Street, with a new loft for work, around the corner on Lexington Avenue.   On the first evening, the former tenants took us out to celebrate at a small restaurant that had only one table.  It was called “The Tomb for Dead Lovers.”  The place was atmospheric, decorated with exotic antiques, many of which were for sale.  There, among the phantasmagorical decor, I met my second Mickey.  The price was $15 dollars.  Incredibly, I left without it.  Eunice secretly got it for me for Christmas.  Our upstairs neighbor was outraged. “$15. for that?  Ridiculous!”  Not ridiculous, Glorious!  It was the Knickerbocker Composition doll, and a revelation to me. This dazzling image was like a celestial vision.  It revealed the fact that there were other great Mickeys out there.  The thought hadn’t occurred to me.  It’s not like I had seen any.  Soon, piece by piece, amazing images continued to turn up, and I discovered that there was once a Golden Age of Graphic Imagery, in which toys and games, and a vast variety of popular iconography were more than likely to be extraordinary works of art.
         On December 19th, 1964, just a few days before that Christmas of the second Mickey, an article about Boutique Fantastique appeared in the New York Times.  Later that day, the phone rang.  I lifted the receiver to hear for the first time, the mesmerizing voice that would dominate my Destiny for the next 20 years.  It was the voice of Harry Kislevitz, a Wizard of the highest order.  I immediately fell under his spell.  His was the voice of Santa Claus, calling, from just across the river in New Jersey, to offer me the possibility of making toys, happily forever after.  And so, I became a toy inventor, creating toys for Harry’s company, Colorforms, for the next twenty years.

        
Meanwhile, Father Time turned a new page, and Eunice and I became parents again, with the birth of our second daughter, Alexandra Toots.  Simultaneous with her arrival, bits and pieces of a distant age began to turn up at certain shops in NYC.  Amazing comic images and artifacts, from the 1930s, and before, were suddenly appearing.  Among these not quite antiques, were more wonderful Mickeys.  And I suddenly found myself on the cutting edge of Mickey Mouse collecting. 

        
Although, I didn’t realize it at the time, the great adventure of my life was just beginning.  It was a voyage of discovery that set forth from a small apartment, and an adjacent loft, in New York City to travel across uncharted seas, aboard an imaginary sailing ship, crafted in Paree, at the fabulous Market of Fleas, on the day I first beheld that cast iron Mickey.  Now, five years later, more fantastic images were beginning to appear, and I was there to rescue and revere them, and, sometimes, restore them to their former glory.  My quest became an impassioned one, as I did everything I could to save these extraordinary artifacts from extinction.  I embarked upon this mission, armed only with determination, intuition, and the bargaining power of a shoe string.  It was a journey that would seem insignificant to many.  Nonetheless, my childhood passion for Walt Disney had programmed me to see the objects and images I discovered as significant... and thrilling! 

       
  Imagine what it's like to be adrift on a vast ocean, surrounded by nothingness and mediocrity, as far as the eye can see, which isn't very far, because a mist hovers above the water.  Then, one day, out of the fog, an object floats by, an incredible treasure, like that amazing cast iron Mickey bank.  And you rescue it, before it can drift away, or disappear beneath the waves.  As you travel forward, more artifacts appear, carried to you on the tide.  And you gather them up, one by one.  All the while, you are wondering where these incredible images are coming from.  Could they be a sign that you are nearing land?  Might it lie just over the horizon, a wonderful place of untold treasures, the likes of which you have never seen before?  As you sail on, the treasures multiply, until your cargo hold is flowing over. 

        
Then, all at once, the mist clears, and you discover that you have sailed across the Gulf of Time.  And you set foot upon the fabled shores of an Enchanted Land that existed, once upon a time, in the Golden Age of Comic Characters, a Magic Era that flourished between the two World Wars!  During that amazing decade, Mickey Mouse was born, and overnight, became the King of Toys.
         when I first began collecting Mickey, I was the only Mickey Mouse collector that I knew.  I enjoyed a kind of powerful anonymity, a giddy sense of delight that was derived from believing that I was the only one looking for him.  Living in New York City in the 1960s, I could breeze through an antique show, and know that any Mickey Mice or other comic characters who might be found there, were, more or less, just waiting for me.  It was almost like having a cloak of invisibility that enabled me to inconspicuously zoom from booth to booth, and scoop them up with impunity. Therefore, I tried to keep my passion for these underappreciated treasures a secret, lest my excitement might invite emulation, and create unwanted competition.  When, other Mickey collectors eventually appeared, they found they had a lot of catching up to do.  Now, after all these years, I can say, with certainty, nobody did.  I was already too far ahead.

         
The first fellow Mickey Mouse collector that I met was Richard Merkin.  Richard was an accomplished artist and art teacher, who lived uptown on West End Avenue, and taught three days a week at the Rhode Island School of Design.  Richard’s schoolmate, Kenny Kneitel, who was Max Fleischer’s grandson, became my friend as well.  Kenny ran a shop in Mid-Manhattan, called, Fandango that specialized in artifacts that were unusual.  Many of these dated from the 1930s, and embodied the imagery of Betty Boop and Classic Mickey.  I also met a powerful collector from Saint Louis, the noted artist, Ernie Trova.  Another fellow traveler on the road to finding Classic Mickey was Albert Horen, from Philly.  Al was a kindred spirit, and the master of his own art form, replicating and creating unique Mickey Mouse timepieces.  There were a few others, including one fiercely competitive “friend” who relieved me of the need to have an enemy.  This select group of unique individuals often gathered at our apartment on 28th Street, where a great wall (that now seems modest) of Comic Character imagery was growing slowly.

         
Late in 1968, an article about the newly born activity of Mickey Mouse collecting appeared in Life Magazine.  It featured a photograph of my hurriedly assembled, and embarrassingly humble, Mickey Mouse collection.
 
          This article had a minor impact, as here and there, across the country, a few more scattered individuals began collecting Mickey.  On the other hand, it had a major impact on yours truly.  Henceforth, I no longer felt a twinge of hesitation to admit that I had been swept off my feet by a passion for amassing and resurrecting the hard to find imagery of Classic Mickey.  And I became a Mickey Mouse Collector, officially!  The article also brought into my life two new friends, who meant the world to me.  The first was Maurice Sendak, and that story is told right here.  The second was John Fawcett

        
People have been known to remark that John and I might well be brothers, twins separated at birth, born two insignificant years apart.  Now, all these years later, we are both falling apart.  And, announcing to each other, what we got lately, as we used to do, nearly every day, along the journey of discovery that led us to the Golden Age of Disney, has changed.  What we got lately, these days, is inevitably a new mishap, ailment, or disease!

         
John Fawcett and I were both only children, who grew up in Wartime. The Disney imagery we loved was often seen in the form of Disney designed insignia, published daily in the newspaper.  One could cut out these images, and when the entire group was complete, the clippings were then put in an envelope and mailed away.  Several weeks later, they would reappear in the form of full color stamps to collect in an enclosed album. 
          John and I did differ, in one respect: John derived his Disney inspiration from comic books, primarily, while I would settle for nothing but the Real Thing, seen only on the silver screen, and a small collection of Disney figurines.

        
By the time Life Magazine brought us together, I had amassed a small collection of three dimensional Mickeys.  John had none of these.  On the other hand, he had put together an impressive collection of two dimensional Disney imagery, primarily in the form of Comics, vintage books, and magazines.  He incorporated this classic imagery into the art that he created.  He was both an artist and an art teacher at the University of Connecticut.  And the drawings he was making often introduced me to the world of two dimensional Disney Graphics.  We corresponded by mail, nearly every day.  Sending each other drawings of our latest acquisitions became a pleasant form of competition.  Each of us hoped the first to get something amazing.  But when one of us found a duplicate, we passed it on to the other.  So, over the years, both our collections, and our friendship, grew together.

         
In the Life article Ernie Trova supplied a quote: “Along with the swastika and the Coca Cola bottle, Mickey Mouse is the most powerful graphic image of the 20th Century.” John celebrated Ernie’s words in a woodcut.  That Christmas, he gave me a copy.  I was honored to see that it was number 1 of 17.
         The above example of John’s art was early, and fairly simple.  His later artwork grew increasingly more busy.  I loved these complex and intricately woven drawings.  Each one was based upon a piece of original Disney graphics, dating from the 1930s.  To be utterly honest, I could never quite decide what about these was turning me on.  Was it the fact that I was seeing through the surface to appreciate the original Disney image underneath, or was it the way that John embroidered and transformed that image that excited me?  After all these years I still can’t make up my mind.  I guess, the bottom line is that I love both versions. 

         
Let me jump ahead in time, for a moment, to illustrate what I am saying.  I have few examples of John’s earliest drawings.  He was selling these like hot cakes, through the OK Harris Gallery in New York City, and I simply couldn't afford any.  But, as time went on, I earned enough to treat myself to a few elaborate examples of John’s work, like the one below.  Here is John’s art, on top, and below it, is the 1930s jigsaw puzzle that inspired it.  I think you will agree, both versions are wonderful.
          So, just as I inspired John to begin collecting objects, he opened my eyes to the glory of Classic Mickey graphics.  And glorious they were!  My God, to think I never saw the likes of these, throughout my childhood.  This anomaly is even more amazing, considering I was a kid obsessed with Disney.  Classic Mickey, where had he been hiding all my life.  Each toy, and game, and book, and jigsaw puzzle I discovered was a treasure.  As my collection grew, I was unknowingly amassing the archive and reference library I would soon need to rescue Classic Mickey from oblivion, and reintroduce him to the world again.  In the years that followed, I would put this growing collection of 2D imagery to good use. 

         
Below, are a few examples of Knock Your Socks Off Mickey Graphics, beginning with a Mickey Target that really hits the bull’s-eye!  This was created by Marks Brothers, not the comedians, but the Boston toy company, in 1933.
         Similar imagery appears in their Bagatelle games.  One was made in England, the other in the USA.  These perfect geometrically correct images of Classic Mickey are hard to beat.  But they were not unique!  To my amazement, I was discovering that, throughout the years, between the two World Wars, almost all Comic Character graphics were great, consistently.  And these two objects, side by side, had all the impact on my life as the tablets of the Ten Commandments!
          And here’s a wild and crazy game, called, Scatter Ball.  The repetition of Mickey’s most Iconic pose is stunningly effective.  This rotating composition that forces us to view Mickey upside down, among a sea of numbers and random holes, moves gently into pure abstraction, with fascinating patterns, created by the repetition of Mickey’s swirling tails. To some, like me, it alludes to the kind of animation one finds in early optical toys such as a phenakistoscope or a zoetrope, and depending on what one brings to this, it might even evoke the majestic Rose Windows of Notre Dame Cathedral.
          It wasn’t just in toys and games that these consistently phenomenal graphics appeared.  Here are the amazing end pages from "The Adventures of Mickey Mouse, Book I," published in 1931.  Just compare these to the first Mickey Mouse book that I saw as a kid.  It’s pictured on the previous page.
          In those early days of inspired discovery, the Mickey Mice that came my way ranged in price, from affordable to cheap.  And I felt that I had found Nirvana, a passion that was totally free of monetary prestige.  This kid who grew up, cringing at the sight of his dad’s Cadillacs, parked in the driveway, had found his perfect version of the same.  And, like the lifestyle he had carefully engineered to hover purposely, on the brink of poverty, this intoxicating imagery was practically free!  Now fate was playing a dirty trick on me.  Those ambivalent entities, known as antique dealers, entered the picture.  And they soon discovered that there was money to be made by sometimes aiding and abetting, and sometimes preying on the dependency of collectors, such as me.

        
One day, a good friend who was not a collector, alerted me to an object he had seen in a shop on Second avenue, near 59th street.  I eagerly went tearing up there, and beheld the stunning example of Classic Disney, below.  My God!  The price was seventy-five dollars.  I was earning a sum that hovered  around two hundred dollars a week.  With two rents to pay, and two kids to raise, how could I afford this outrageously priced luxury?  In spite of that, I could not resist it.  I remember slinking home with it, in a plain brown paper bag, no doubt, looking like a naughty puppy, who vaguely knew that he had misbehaved, but wasn’t quite sure what his transgression might be.  I realized, at that moment, that I had crossed a line, and there would be no turning back.  If I hoped to continue collecting Mickey, I would need to make a living.